Polychlorinated biphenyl

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Labelling transformers containing PCBs
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Labelling transformers containing PCBs

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are a class of organic compounds with 1 to 10 chlorine atoms are attached to biphenyl and a general structure of C12H10-xClx. Most PCB congeners are colorless, odorless crystals. The commercial mixtures are clear viscous liquids (the more highly chlorinated mixtures are more viscous, for example, Aroclor 1260 is a "sticky resin"). Although the physical and chemical properties vary widely across the class, PCBs have low water solubilities and low vapor pressures. They are soluble in most organic solvents, oils, and fats. PCBs are very stable compounds and do not degrade easily. However, under certain conditions they may be destroyed by chemical, thermal, and biochemical processes. These processes may occur intentionally (e.g., incineration), unintentionally, or metabolically. Because of their high thermodynamic stability, all degradation mechanisms are difficult. Intentional degradation as a treatment of unwanted PCBs generally requires high heat or a catalysis. Environmental and metabolic degradation generally proceeds quite slowly relative to most other compounds.

PCBs were commercially produced as complex mixtures containing multiple isomers at different degrees of chlorination. These were sold under trade names followed by a 4 digit number. The first two digits refer to the number of carbon atoms in the biphenyl skeleton (for PCBs this is 12), the second two numbers indicate the percentage of chlorine by mass in the mixture. Thus Aroclor 1260 has 12 carbon atoms and contains 60% chlorine by mass. PCB mixtures have been used for a variety of applications, including dielectric fluids for capacitors and transformers, heat transfer fluids, hydraulic fluids, lubricating and cutting oils, and as additives in pesticides, paints, carbonless copy ("NCR") paper, adhesives, sealants, plastics, and as a fixative for microscopy. The major producer, Monsanto, marketed PCBs under the trade name Aroclor from 1930 to 1977. Their commercial utility was based largely on their chemical stability, including low flammability, and desirable physical properties, including electrical insulating properties. Their chemical and physical stability has also been responsible for their continuing low-level persistence in the environment, and the lingering interest decades after regulations were imposed to control environmental contamination.

In the 1970s, their use declined and essentially terminated because of environmental concerns. PCBs are persistent organic pollutants and have entered the environment through both use and disposal. The environmental transport of PCBs is complex and global. The public, legal, and scientific concerns about PCBs arose from research indicating they were environmental contaminants that had a potential to adversely impact the environment, and, therefore, were undesirable as commercial products. The extent to which PCBs are toxic remains controversial. Despite active research spanning five decades, extensive regulatory actions, and an effective ban on their production since the 1970s, PCBs remain a focus of environmental attention.

Contents

Health effects

The most commonly observed health effects in people exposed to large amounts of PCBs are skin conditions such as chloracne and rashes. Studies in exposed workers have shown changes in blood and urine that may indicate liver damage. PCB exposures in the general population are not likely to result in skin and liver effects. Most of the studies of health effects of PCBs in the general population examined children of mothers who were exposed to PCBs.

Animals that ate food containing large amounts of PCBs for short periods of time had mild liver damage and some died. Animals that ate smaller amounts of PCBs in food over several weeks or months developed various kinds of health effects, including anemia; acne-like skin conditions; and liver, stomach, and thyroid gland injuries. Other effects of PCBs in animals include changes in the immune system, behavioral alterations, and impaired reproduction. PCBs are not known to cause birth defects.

Few studies of workers indicate that PCBs were associated with certain kinds of cancer in humans, such as cancer of the liver and biliary tract. Rats that ate food containing high levels of PCBs for two years developed liver cancer. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has concluded that PCBs may reasonably be anticipated to be carcinogens. The EPA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) have determined that PCBs are probably carcinogenic to humans.

Women who were exposed to relatively high levels of PCBs in the workplace or ate large amounts of fish contaminated with PCBs had babies that weighed slightly less than babies from women who did not have these exposures. Babies born to women who ate PCB-contaminated fish also showed abnormal responses in tests of infant behavior. Some of these behaviors, such as problems with motor skills and a decrease in short-term memory, lasted for several years. Other studies suggest that the immune system was affected in children born to and nursed by mothers exposed to increased levels of PCBs. The most likely way infants will be exposed to PCBs is from breast milk. Transplacental transfers of PCBs were also reported. Because an infant will receive more than ten times the amount of PCBs from breast milk than it will for the rest of its life, It is being debated whether the benefits of breast-feeding outweigh the risks from exposure to PCBs.

Studies have shown that PCBs alter estrogen levels in the body and contribute to reproduction problems. In the womb, males can be feminized or the baby may be intersex, neither a male or a female. Also, both sets of reproductive organs may develop. More instances of this are being reported. Biological magnification of PCBs has also led to polar bears and whales that have both male and female sex organs and males that cannot reproduce. This effect is also known as endocrine disruption. Endorcrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) pose a serious threat to reproduction in top-level predators.

Methods of disposal

These can be separated into three distinct categories:

1. Physical methods of destruction

Landfill – Large quantities of PCBs have been placed in landfill sites, mainly in the form of transformers and capacitors. Many municipal sites are not designed to contain these pollutants and PCBs are able to escape into the atmosphere or ground water. No emissions above background are seen if the landfill is designed correctly.

Incineration – Although PCBs do not themselves ignite, they can be combusted under extreme and carefully controlled conditions. Current regulations require that PCBs are burnt at a temperature of 1200C for at least two seconds, in the presence of fuel oil and excess oxygen. A lack of oxygen can result in the formation of PCDDs, PCDFs and dioxins, or the incomplete destruction of the PCBs. Such specific conditions mean that it is extremely expensive to destroy PCBs on a tonnage scale, and it can only be used on PCB containing equipment and contaminated liquid. This method is not suitable for the decontamination of affected soils.

Ultrasound – In a similar process to combustion, high power ultrasonic waves are applied to water, generating cavitation bubbles. These then implode or fragment, creating microregions of extreme pressures and temperatures where the PCBs are destroyed. Water is thought to undergo thermolysis, oxidising the PCBs to CO, CO2 and hydrocarbons such as biphenyl, with chlorine present as the inorganic ion 16. The scope of this method is limited to those congeners which are the most water soluble; those isomers with the least chlorine substitution.

2. Microbial methods of destruction

Much recent work has centred on the study of micro-organisms that are able to decompose PCBs. Generally, these organisms work in one of two ways: either they use the PCB as a carbon source, or destruction takes place through reductive dechlorination, with the replacement of chlorine with hydrogen on the biphenyl skeleton. However, there are significant problems with this approach. Firstly, these microbes tend to be highly selective in their dechlorination, with lower chlorinated biphenyls being readily transformed, and with preference to dechlorination in the para and meta positions. Secondly, microbial dechlorination tends to be rather slow in comparison to other methods. Finally, while microbes work well in laboratory conditions, there is often a problem in transferring a successful laboratory strain to a natural system. This is because the microbes are able to gain other sources of carbon, which they will decompose in preference to PCBs. Further recent developments have focussed on testing enzymes and vitamins extracted from microbes which show PCB activity. Especially promising seems to be the use of vitamin B12, in which a cobalt ion is in oxidation state (III) under normal redox conditions. Using titanium (III) citrate as a strong reductant converts the cobalt from Co(III) to Co(I), giving a new vitamin known as B12s, which is a powerful nucleophile and reducing catalyst. This can then be used on PCBs, which it dechlorinates in a rapid and selective manner.

3. Chemical methods of destruction

Many chemical methods are available to destroy or reduce the toxicity of PCBs.

Aromatic nucleophilic substitution is a method of destroying low concentration PCB mixtures in oils, such as transformer oil. Substitution of chlrorine by poly(ethylene glycols) occurs in under two hours under a blanket of nitrogen, to prevent oxidation of the oil, to produce aryl polyglycols, which are insoluble in the oil and precipitate out.

Between 700 and 925C, H2 cleaves the carbon-chlorine bond, and cleaves the biphenyl nucleus into benzene yielding HCl without a catalyst. This can be performed at lower temperatures with a copper catalyst, and to yield biphenyl. However, since both of these routes require an atmosphere of hydrogen gas and relatively high temperatures they are prohibitively expensive.

Reaction with highly electropositive metals, or strong reducing agents such as sodium naphthalide, in aprotic solvents results in a transfer of electrons to the PCB, the expulsion of a chloride ion, and a coupling of the PCBs. This is analogous to the Wurtz Reaction for coupling halogenoalkanes. The effect is to polymerise many molecules, therefore reducing the volatility, solubility and toxicity of the mixture. This methodology is most successful on low strength PCB mixtures and can also be performed electrochemically in a partly aqueous bicontinuous microemulsion.

The solution photochemistry of PCBs is based on the transfer of an electron to a photochemically excited PCB from a species such as an amine, to give a radical anion. This either expels a chloride ion and the resulting aryl radical extracts a hydrogen atom from the solvent, or immediately becomes protonated, leading to the loss of a chlorine atom. It is useful only for water soluble PCBs.

Solar radiation excites aryl species, which commonly undergo atmospheric oxidation by O2 to ultimately form phenols. This is the major natural decomposition pathway for PCBs in the environment. A much more competitive route to decomposition in the gas phase is attack on PCBs by OH radicals, themselves made through the photolysis of ozone.

The Schwartz reaction is the subject of much study, and has significant benefits over other routes. It is advantageous since it proceeds via a reductive process, and thus yields no dioxins through oxidation. The proposed reaction scheme involves the electron transfer from a titanium (III) organometallic species to form a radical anion on the PCB molecule which expels chlorine to eventually form the relatively non-toxic biphenyl.

See also

fr:Polychloro-biphnyle nl:Polychloorbifenyl ja:ポリ塩化ビフェニル no:Polyklorerte bifenyler pl:PCB sv:PCB

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